Ending Secrecy on Police Misconduct
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
New York Times
The deaths of unarmed civilians like Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., led to demands for greater transparency in the workings of police forces all over the country. The need for more openness is especially pressing in New York, where a uniquely strict disclosure law has shielded from public view the records of individual officers, even those who have committed crimes.
In many states, including New York, it can be difficult for the public to even learn the names of officers involved in fatal shootings. New York City’s Police Department came forth quickly with the name of the officer who shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a public housing apartment building in November. The officer, Peter Liang, was indicted on charges of second-degree manslaughter this week.
But such disclosures are unusual — and done at the department’s discretion. Indeed, under Section 50-a of the state civil rights code, New York exempts the police and other uniformed services from disclosure requirements that apply to other public employees.
Approved in 1976, the statute sought to protect police officers from the Freedom of Information Law, passed two years earlier, and keep defense lawyers from rummaging around in police personnel files for information to use in cross-examining officers during criminal trials. Under Section 50-a, an officer’s personnel record cannot be publicly released or cited in court without judicial approval, protections that have been extended to correction officers and professional firefighters. Meanwhile, the definition of “personnel record” has grown so broad that the courts have interpreted it to cover virtually any information that could be brought to bear in decisions on promotion or retention.
The unjustified secrecy surrounding police records undermines public confidence in law enforcement as well as any effort to hold police departments accountable for misconduct. That point was underscored late last year in a report by the New York State Committee on Open Government, a unit within the Department of State that advises government, the public and the news media on freedom of information and privacy matters.
The report, to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature, noted that New Yorkers had “far less access to information about the activities of police departments than virtually any other public agency,” even though people encounter police officers in a more direct way than they do other public employees. Robert Freeman, executive director of the committee, told The Times recently that 50-a had essentially codified “the blue wall of silence,” making it possible for the police to hide an officer’s conduct from the public.